Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Japanese 'Way' with words.

I don't speak Japanese, except for the words and phrases that I have learnt as part of my martial arts training. However, I am struck by the richness of some of these words. It seems that in Japanese, a single word or phrase can encapsulate a profound meaning that is conceptual, abstract, metaphorical, descriptive and emotional all at the same time. It's as if a single Japanese word can speak a thousand English ones.

Many of these conceptual words are used in the martial arts. Words like mushin, zanshin, kime and ma-ai. Often we add simple descriptive labels to these words such as mushin = empty mind, zanshin = awareness, kime = focus and ma-ai = space and distance. These simple descriptors do not do justice to the real meanings of these words. These words are concepts that need to be felt and experienced first hand to be truly understood.

I once tried to write a post about kime. I researched the word on the Internet quite extensively but it became clear that most people who had written about it did not understand it either. Peoples understanding of the word focus varied enormously! For some people focus was about mental concentration, for others it was about focusing power on an imaginary target. I never did write the post because I couldn't be sure in my own mind exactly what was meant by 'focus' let alone 'kime'! I think this is because I haven't truly experienced kime yet. I'm hoping that when I do, I'll recognize and understand it, but I expect by then it will have become tacit knowledge - something you intuitively know but can't explain to others. So I still won't be able to write the post!

However, despite my lack of direct experience with some of these Japanese concepts, I seem to instinctively know that they are important to the martial artist. They are not just important for the development of technical proficiency but for the development of the mind and mind-set. They are part of the Way.

To clearly understand these concepts one needs to think about them, particularly whilst training, but outside of training too. To think about them you need the vocabulary to do so (we can't think without words!) So, at least knowing of the existence of these Japanese words and their simple English descriptors is something to work with. Hopefully, through training, reading, thinking and self-exploration these terms will become clearer and their deeper meanings revealed. Maybe then, they will inform my practice of marital arts more profoundly.

It is indeed a long and difficult journey that we have embarked on.......

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. said...

As usual I couldn't agree more. I liked Jesse's take on Kime here (
particularly when he talks about the casual use of the word kime in Japanese language.

As you know I've been reading a lot of MA blogs of late and everyone seems to have their own interpretation of what Kime means and I'm starting to think that's part of the point. You can't know what it is until you identify it's manifestation within yourself and it's expression and presence is unique to each individual.

Once again karate brings forth another fascinating concept. Love it!

Felicia said...

Great post, Sue - and I totally agree with you about the need to experience the concepts first hand to really understand the true meaning and how they apply. For me, kime is almost like "the zone" athletes talk about - like the tunnel vision I get while sparring in tournament (never experience it while doing kumite in the training hall quite the same way). Can't explain it, but I know I'm DOING without thinking about the movements. Freaky, really!

Yep, lots of twists and turns on this path - including interpretation - which, like Marie said, might entirely be the point. Wow - my head hurts now :-)

Sue C said...

Hi Marie, thanks for pointing me to Jesse's blog - his interpretation of kime is now giving me food for thought!

Hi Felicia, 'in the zone'? I thought that was more mushin than kime? Oh dear! my head hurts too:-)

Frank said...

I lived in Japan for ten years, am fluent in Japanese, and my wife is Japanese. The concepts embodied in these words is still so elusive...

To me, Kime and Mushin are very closely related. I can't explain it other than to say that it's a Zen-like, one-pointed concentration of the mind, the will, the body; every fiber of our being so deeply focused, that we become the archer, the arrow, and the target with the arrow stuck right in the bullseye, before we've ever even drawn the bow.

It's almost like the famous Taoist koan from the Tao-Te-Ching: "Doing nothing, nothing remains undone."

John Coles said...

A truely insightful posting. Well done. Many people, particularly in the martial arts, dismiss the meaning of words - to their own detriment. I think it was Socrates who said that the beginning of wisdom is with the definition of terms. Someone is attempting to express an idea or concept through the use of words, and so much can be learnt from a study of those words. You may not be able to articulate your understanding of the concept, however, the limitation is in articulation and not in understanding. I've found my work in writing my book has come back again and again to Socrates' beginning of wisdom is with the definition of terms.

Anonymous said...

I don’t think those states of mind you’re referring to can be achieved by rational contemplation: take ‘mushin’ for example… How can you ever reach the state of no mind when you’re obsessing about the possible meaning or you’re engaging in empty wordplay? Mushin, zanshin, fudoshin… they are all the product of intensive and frequent training, they can be only be experienced directly and it’s quite impossible to summon them forth by thinking (you’re just putting up smoke screens which obscure the truth even more). This is analoguos to Zen where a lot of said terms originated from: Zen can only be experienced in meditation, no amount of reading, philosophizing or discussion will bring you any further to its essence.

To compare eastern mysticism with western philosophy is like comparing apples and oranges: it’s fairly useless and it won’t lead to a deeper understanding of either. Rational, logical thinking is a typical product of the western mind (no wonder modern science originated in Europe and not in Asia or Africa), eastern thinking is much more complex (there are a great many stages between a and not a, something that quantumphysics is just beginning to discover), intuitive & holistic.

Sue C said...

Frank, you speak Japanese? I'm impressed! I may have to pick your brains at some point.....

John, thank you. I absolutely agree with you. Understanding concepts through thinking/reading or writing about them enhances our physical training greatly because we know what it is we are trying to achieve and we can better recognise when we have acheived it.

Though words are no substitute for physical training, physical training alone becomes like a rudderless ship without navigation. Without the words we will be lost at sea!

Zara, for someone who clearly reads a lot and has plenty to say you seem very contemptuous of a post about words! I was not suggesting that one can learn martial arts from a book or understand the concepts that this post discusses merely by thinking about them. I think I made it pretty clear that 'one has to experience these concepts first hand' - which implies through training.

I would also suggest that Eastern thinking is more 'complex, intuitive and holistic' because of the structure of Eastern languages which was the whole point of my post in the first place.

Journeyman said...

Really interesting post and a lot of great comments.

I have always found it fascinating how a single word in Japanese can have so much meaning. One word can summon up visions of a way of life, a way of thinking or an ideal. I imagine this is why kanji is so popular for tattoos.

If I'm not mistaken, the english language has more words than any other language. Perhaps in a few cases, we have too many words to try to describe what can more aptly be summed up with a single word in another language.

With the example of mushin, I'm often curious if it's a chicken or an egg type of thing.

Did someone discover a state of 'no mind' or 'empty mindedness' and then try to find a word to describe it, or did someone learn the word and try to find that state of being?

There are those moments in training when you realize you've glimpsed something special, something that transcends the purely physical.

These glimpses have, for me, only been fleeting, but my search for them continues. I'm not sure I could find a single word to describe them.

Sue C said...

Hi Jouneyman, I suspect the state of being came first and the word developed to encapsulate the meaning. We now have the advantage of knowing the word first and hence know what it is we are looking for! Well, that's my theory anyway :-)

Ninja techniques said...

Totally agree. It's great how the semantics of a given word or phrase can be so profound.


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